Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rick Bass Wins 2016 Story Prize

Rick Bass’s For a Little While: New and Collected Stories has just won the 2016 Story Prize, for which Bass will receive $20,000.  It contains eighteen stories previously published in book form and seven stories new to book form. The paperback version, which I just ordered, will be available o March 21. I will comment on the new stories in a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, here is a brief discussion of one of my favorite Bass stories in For a Little While, “The Hermit’s Story.

“The Hermit’s Story,” a magical tale about the entry into an alternate reality, begins with a sort of poetic overture about the blue color of an ice storm.  The narrator and his wife have gone to the home of Ann and Roger for Thanksgiving dinner.  The power is out, and after the two couples eat pie and drink wine before a roaring fire, Ann tells a story about an experience she had twenty years before up in Saskatchewan with a man named Gray Owl who hired Ann to train six German shorthair pointers.

After Ann has trained the dogs all summer and into the fall, she takes them back to Gray Owl to show him how to continue to work them.  She and Gray Owl take the dogs out into the snow, and Ann uses live quail to show Gray Owl how the dogs will follow the birds and point them.  They work the dogs for a week until they get lost in a heavy snowstorm, drifting away from their home area by as much as ten miles.  When they come to a frozen lake and Gray Owl walks out on its surface and kicks at it to find some water for the dogs, he abruptly disappears below the ice.

Ann decides to go into the water after Gray Owl, for even if he is already drowned, he has their tent and emergency rations.  However, when she crawls out on the ice and peers down into the hole where Gray Owl disappeared, she sees standing him below waving at her.  When he helps her down, he says that what has happened is that a cold snap in October has frozen a skin of ice over the shallow lake and then a snowfall insulated it.  When the lake drained in the winter, the ice on top remained.  Ann goes back to the shore and hands the dogs down into the warmth created by the enclosed space beneath the ice.

The world under the ice is a magical one, the air unlike anything they have ever breathed before. The cold air from the hole they made meets with the warm air from the earth beneath the lake to create breezes.   Although the ice above them contracts and groans, they feel they are safe beneath a sea watching waves of starlight sweep across their hiding place.  When they build a fire from cattails, small pockets of swamp gas ignite with explosions of brilliance.

The two head for what they hope is the southern shore, the dogs chasing and pointing snipe and other birds.  They finally reach the other shore and walk south for a half a day until they reach their truck.  That night they are back at Gray Owl’s cabin, and by the next night Ann is home again. The story ends with the narrator considering that Ann is the only one who carries the memory of that underworld passage.  He thinks that it perhaps gave her a model for what things are like for her dogs when they are hunting and enter a zone where the essences of things. 

When  “The Hermit’s Story,” appeared in the 1999 Best American Short Stories collection, Rick Bass said in his contributor’s note that as soon as he heard about a frozen lake with no water in it, he knew he wanted to write a story about that.  Because he was trying to train two bird dogs at the time, he made up a bird-dog trainer as a sort of wish fulfillment and had her go up to Canada and fall into such a lake.

Such an event alone, as dramatically potential as it might be, does not, of course, make a story.   What makes the event a story is Bass’s exploration of the symbolic significance of the magical world into which the characters enter.  That magical world is presaged even before they break through the ice with the blue world of the ice storm described by the narrator in the opening paragraphs in which the blue is like a scent trapped in the ice.  It is further emphasized by the fact that the storm has knocked out the electricity, creating a world of darkness.  In the midst of this cold, blue, dark world, the two couples sit before a fire, creating the classic setting for a story to be told.

When Ann and Gray Wolf work the dogs in the snow of Saskatchewan, they travel across snowy hills, the sky the color of snow so that it seems they are moving in a dream.  Except for the rasp of the snowshoes and the pull of gravity, they might believe they had ascended into a sky-place where the entire world was snow.  All this is preparation for their descent into the improbable, magical world underneath the frozen lake.  When they look up, the ice is clear, and they can see stars as if they were up there among them or else as if the stars were embedded in the ice.

The closest the narrator can come to articulating the meaning of the experience is to suggest that it perhaps was a zone where the appearances of things disappeared, where surfaces faded away and instead their very essence was “revealed, illuminated, circumscribed, possessed.”  Much like a magical journey in a fairy tale, the experience under the ice is a journey into a realm of dream and desire, which suggests that the world is a much more magical and mysterious place than we usually think.

Style is especially important to this story, for without Bass’s poetic descriptions, his rhythmic prose, and his suggestions about the mythic significance of the experience it would be merely an interesting anecdote, depending solely on the unusual nature of the frozen empty lake.  The opening paragraph, by repeating the reference to the color blue and the fictional metaphoric phrase “as if,” sets up the entry into the fairy tale world.  This “as if” metaphoric quality also is used to refer to Ann’s transformation of the dogs from wild and unruly pups into well-trained hunting dogs, “as if” they are rough blocks of stone with their internal form existing already, waiting to be chiseled free.  If the training is neglected, they have a tendency to revert to their old selves, “as if” the dogs’ greatness can disappear back into the stone.

Although often metaphoric, Bass’s style is not flowery, but rather simple and straightforward.  He does not tell the story in Ann’s words, but rather has the narrator retell it, thus filtering the story through two points of view.  Neither Ann nor Gray Owl talk much during their experience, and when they do it is in the simple straightforward language of people reduced to basic states.  In telling Ann about the lake, he says “It’s not really a phenomenon; it’s just what happens.”  And when she asks if he knew it would be like this, he says, “No.  I was looking for water.  I just got lucky.”  Although there is no indication, other than his name, that Gray Owl is Native American, his dialogue reflects the common literary convention of having Native Americans speak in short declarative sentences. 

Bass, a naturalist who has written nonfiction books about the Yaak Valley in Montana, also devotes much of the story to his fascination with the natural world of, as well as the dogs and the birds they hunt.  For example, when the birds flush out snipe from the cattails underneath the ice, Bass spends at least two pages pondering the presence of the birds, wondering if they had been unable to migrate because of injuries or a genetic absence.  With the curiosity of the naturalist, he wonders if the snipe had tried to carve out new ways of being in the stark and severe landscape, holding on until the spring would come like green fire.  If the snipe survived, the narrator reckons, they would be among the first to see the spring; they would think that the torches of Ann and Gray Owl were merely one of winter’s dreams.

The fairy-tale, folklore nature of the story persists throughout, with the narrator considering at the end that Ann holds on to her experience as one might hold on to a valuable gem found while out for a walk and thus containing some great magic or strength.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Carson McCullers and "A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud"

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Carson McCullers.  Although better known as a novelist, McCullers is the author of one of my favorite stories, “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud.” I included it in my textbook collection Fiction’s Many Worlds, and I assigned it and discussed with my students many times. When the story was selected by Paul Engles, editor of the O. Henry Award anthology in 1942, Engles said he considered "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud" "the most perfect short story in American Literature." 
That’s a very powerful statement—“the most perfect short story.”  One might well ask what qualities of the story would make Engles make such a statement.  The story is available online, and I recommend it to you. 
The plot is very simple: A young paperboy stops at a café one morning while making his route and is called over by an elderly man drinking alone. The man tells the boy a story about having won and lost a woman he loved and then developing an explanation of what that loss meant. Throughout the encounter, the owner of the café makes scornful comments on the man’s story.
The enclosed situation of the cafe in the early morning, the confrontation between the young initiate and the experienced older man; the cynical and ironic observer, the silent chorus of men in the background--all this suggest a paradigmatic short story situation.  Moreover, the story's focus on loneliness and the difficulty of loving fits with Frank O'Connor's famous definition of the short story in The Lonely Voice.
The story echoes Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—both because it deals with a man who has a story to tell and grabs a passerby to insist that he listen, and the fact that it deals with empathetic identification of one person with another and therefore with the basic injunction that we love the other as the self. I have written about this in the first chapter of my book, I Am Your Brother. I agree with Frank O’Connor that it is one of the archetypal themes of the short story as a genre.
What needs to be understood about the story is the notion of love that it presents.  Some readers may be as cynical as the cafe owner Leo in their reactions to the notion of loving a tree, a rock, a cloud. What exactly does that mean?  How indeed is that possible? McCullers provides a suggestion about what she means by love in her essay, "The Flowering Dream:  Notes on Writing' in The Mortgaged Heart.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1941:  "How, without love and the intuition that comes from love, can a human being place himself in the situation of another human being?  He must imagine, and imagination takes humility, love, and great courage."
If we ask why it is easier to love a tree, a rock, a cloud than it is to love a person, the answer must be that love is indeed synonymous with identification with the other.  The aim of love is to dissolve that which separates us and to swallow up the other.  This is difficult with a person because the other is a subjective consciousness who wishes to maintain self-identity.
  However, as the transient tells the puzzled boy, one can gradually learn to identify with the other if one begins simply with the less threatening. This story is about that primitive sense of the sacred that constitutes true reality, the basic religious yearning of human consciousness to lose the self in the other.  Leo knows the transient is right, but he also knows that such a demand is impossible for the ordinary human; the boy, of course, has yet to learn this hard fact of human reality.
The most important passages in the story, it seems to me are the following when the man tries to explain his situation and his science to the young boy:

“It was like this,” the man continued. “I am a person who feels many things. All my life one thing after another has impressed me. Moonlight. The leg of a pretty girl. One thing after another. But the point is that when I had enjoyed anything there was a peculiar sensation as though it was laying around loose in me. Nothing seemed to finish itself up or fit in with the other things. Women? I had my portion of them. The same. Afterwards laying around loose in me. I was a man who had never loved.”

“Then I met this woman. I was fifty-one years old and she always said she was thirty. I met her at a filling station and we were married within three days. And you know what it was like? I just can’t tell you. All I had ever felt was gathered together around this woman. Nothing lay around loose in me anymore but was finished up by her.”

“I meditated on love and reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love for the first time. And what do they fall in love with?”

The boy’s soft mouth was partly open and he did not answer.

“A woman,” the old man said. “Without science, with nothing to go by, they undertake the most dangerous and sacred experience in God’s earth. They fall in love with a woman. Is that correct, Son?”

 “Yeah,” the boy said faintly.

“They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax. Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should love?”

The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his green eyes gazed down unblinking and grave.

“Son, do you know how love should be begun?” The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his head. The old man leaned closer and whispered:

“A tree. A rock. A cloud.”

“For six years now I have gone around by myself and built up my science. And now I am a master. Son. I can love anything. No longer do I have to think about it even. I see a street full of people and a beautiful light comes in me. I watch a bird in the sky. Or I meet a traveler on the road. Everything, Son. And anybody. All stranger and all loved! Do you realize what a science like mine can mean?”

The notion of things lying around inside of one until love unifies them into a complete whole seems to me a crucial description of the short story as a literary form.

Karen Allen, who played Indiana Jones’s girlfriend, has obviously been as captured by “A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud” over the years as I have. She has recently adapted the story and directed a 30-minute film version of it, which debuts today in Columbus, Georgia, McCuller’s hometown, to commemorate her 100th birthday. Here is what Allen said about her admiration of the story in a piece in the Columbus newspaper:

“It’s hard to not want to share it with people, and honestly, throughout my life, let’s say I’ve know this story for 45 years, I have almost never met anybody who had read it. And I think I just want people to have the experience of her as a writer, and the beauty and the depth of her writing. I feel like in some almost mystical way, I am the caretaker of this story, like I’m meant to bring it to people.”

A trailer of the film is available online.  It looks like a very fine and faithful adaptation of the story.  I wish Ms. Allen luck with her film. I hope it is available where I can see it some day. Anyone who loves a short story that much is near and dear to my heart.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Tribute to Bharati Mukherjee

For various reasons, both personal and professional, I have had to neglect my blog for the past few months.  I apologize.  However, there is one very sad circumstance I feel I cannot neglect—the passing of a short story writer whose work I respect. When such a person dies, I feel honor bound to reread some of his or her stories and write a brief tribute on what I admire about their work. Last month it was William Trevor. Today it is Bharati Mukherjee, who died last week of a heart condition in New York City.
I  met Bharati many years ago at one of the International Short Story Conferences in Iowa City, at which I was making a presentation about the form and she was reading one of her stories. I sat and watched her working hard at her large laptop one day while having a cup of coffee at the cafeteria. She looked up and smiled shyly, saying, “We have to take what time we can find, don’t we?”
The headline for the obit in The New York Times stated:” Bharati Mukherjee, Writer of Immigrant Life, Dies at 76.” Since subject matter rather than style is more accessible and recognizable to most readers, especially if it is timely subject matter, I suppose it was inevitable that “Immigrant” was the key word in the headline. It would hardly attract much attention if the key words had been “Writer of Perfectly Constructed Short Stories.”
Bharati and I shared greetings in the halls of various conferences on the Short Story over the years. We did not know each other well; we simply knew each other’s work. The last time I shared the platform with her was in Lisbon, Portugal a few years ago, when she and I and Francine Prose talked about the short story. When I was making my presentation, elevating the form of the short story above cultural content, the cantankerous writer Amira Baraka (formerly Leroi Jones) stood up, waved his arms at me impatiently, and stormed out. Later at his own luncheon presentation, he snuffed and snorted about me as if I were the epitome of racist white conservatism. At a cocktail party that night, Bharati came up to me, put her hand on my shoulder, and told me not to fret, for everyone encountered the raging resentment of Baraka at one time or another.
I won’t summarize the facts of Bharati’s life; you can find bios in various online places.  Instead  I want to discuss briefly one of her best-known short stories—“The Management of Grief”—from her collection The Middleman and Other Stories,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1988.
Twelve years ago in an interview in the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, Mukherjee stated emphatically: “I’m an American writer who happens to be from South Asia.  I hope no one sees me or my fiction as representing the entire Indian community…. I think minority writers are particularly prone to turning characters of fiction into representations in a political agenda.  The result is that you may produce novels that are useful as texts in social studies or women’s studies courses, but they will never be fine literature.”
This suggestion that writing directed toward a political agenda is often incompatible with fine literature is the position I expressed in Lisbon that raised the ire of Amira Baraka.  It goes against a popular academic position expressed ten years earlier by the highly respected theorist/critic Frederic Jameson in his essay “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Jameson declared that third world literatures were necessarily national allegories. “The story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third world culture and society.”
In an essay in The Journal of Modern Literature in 1996, critic Thomas Palakeel argued that Jameson’s theory not only attributes a false sense of power to the literatures of the Third World, “but also reduces all the writings of the non-Western world to a tidy, one-dimensional aesthetic.” He insists that it is the “close reading” that scratches off the allegorical and political and reveals the literary.”
This position was Bharati’s view also, as it is the view of many short story writers, who value the precise way short stories focus on the personal and the universal, rather than the local and the social.
“The Management of Grief” focuses on Shaila Bhave’s efforts to deal with the death of her entire family—her husband and two sons—in the 1985 Air India crash over Ireland that killed over two hundred. The title of the story has a certain wry bitterness, for to suggest that grief of such magnitude can somehow be “managed,” as if it were a business deal  is ludicrous and heartless.  However, it seems to be the only way that a government can try to help its people “manage” grief.  Judith Templeton, a government appointee, has her textbooks on grief management that outline the stages of grief.  She has come to seek Mrs. Bhave’s help because she seems to have dealt with her loss with such calm acceptance. But Shaila says her reaction is that of a freak—that the “terrible calm” she feels will just not go away—that she can be no help to others, for, “We must all grieve in our own way.
And this is what the story is about. Although it may be true that death can be “managed” in a social ritual of a funeral or wake in which people gather together to mark the passing of someone.  But it is probably also true that “grief” is purely personal. It is why we feel so helpless to do anything when we witness its external manifestations in another person. As opposed to the government way of managing grief, the Indian way is that of denial, insisting that it is a parent’s duty to hope. The Irish, whose dependence on government has never been very strong, hug the widows and mothers, and bring them flowers.
At the end of the story, Mrs. Bhave says she flutters between two different worlds, two modes of knowledge. She does not know how to tell Templeton that her family surrounds her in her mind like shape-shifters in epics. When Templeton despairs of ever convincing the Indian families that the government is there to help them, Shaila wants to tell her, “In our culture, it is a parent’s duty to hope.”  And then she walks away from Templeton, determined to find her own way to grieve.  The story ends with her hearing the voices of her family telling to be brave, and her admission that she does not know where her voyage will end and which direction to take. There is no resolution to loss, no management of grief; if one can, one simply goes on.
I extend my sympathies to Bharati Mukherjee’s family and friends.  I admired her greatly and shall remember her always.  There is no way to “manage” my profound sense of loss.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Tribute to William Trevor

I have been away from computers and newspapers for a week, far from the madding crowd, celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with my family in a mountain cabin.  I was therefore saddened to learn on my return home when I read the Sunday Los Angeles Times that one of my very favorite short story writers, William Trevor, had died on Nov. 20, at the age of 88.
Author Scott Bradfield wrote a perceptive tribute to Trevor for the LA Times, noting quite rightly that Trevor's temperament was better suited to the short story than to the novel, quoting Trevor's remark, "I'm a short story writer, really, who happens to write novels. Not the other way around."
Bradfield says that for Trevor each short story is an experiment in form, and requires far more concentration than any "shaggy, Pulitzer-worthy novel; this is because each story is not an analysis or explanation of our world but rather only a perfect expression of itself." Bradfield quoted Trevor, who told The Paris Review:
"If the novel is like an intricate Renaissance painting, the short story is an impressionistic painting. It should be an explosion of truth. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in, if not more. It is concerned with the total exclusion on meaninglessness.  Life, on the other hand, is meaningless most of the time.  The novel imitates life, where the short story is bony, and cannot wander. It is essential art."
I have written about Trevor's stories several times on this blog, for which you can search if you are of a mind to, but here are a few additional comments on one of his last collections, A Bit on the Side.
Trevor’s twelve stories here, seven of which appeared in The New Yorker, reaffirm that he always had a profound understanding of the complexity of what makes people do what they do and an unerring ability to use language to suggest that intimate intricacy.
For example, in the title story, a mature couple who has been having an affair reaches that moment of terrible relief when it must end.  Explanations are exchanged, excuses made, and it all seems so apparent. But it isn’t.
As in all great short stories, from Chekhov to Carver, there is mystery and not a little menace in the stories of William Trevor—secrets so tangled and inexplicable that efforts to explain them with the language of psychology or sociology or history are either futile or absurd.
“Big Bucks” seems like a traditional Irish emigration story.  The young man goes to America to get work, while the young woman waits for him to send for her.  As usual, work is hard to find, communication is difficult, and it seems the man has forgotten.  But it’s not that conventional.  She begins to realizes that what held them together was not love, whatever that is, but the shared goal of going to America.
In “Sitting with the Dead,” a woman whose cold and uncaring husband has just died, must entertain two professional comforters, to whom she spills her secret hatred for the man.  But, it is not that straightforward, and they know that the dead they have been sitting with is she.
In “Sacred Statues,” a woman whose husband has some artistic talent but must get by as a simple laborer can’t understand why she, who has children easily, cannot sell her unborn baby to a  childless neighbor to give her husband a chance.  And although the reason seems obvious, as usual in Trevor’s stories, it is not.
These are not cultural examinations of either the old Ireland of legend or the new Ireland of the European Union, but rather profoundly wise explorations of individual, yet universal, secrets and mysteries of the heart. 
Even when Trevor writes a story with a social or historical context, it is levered on the personal.  In “Justina’s Priest,” the loosening hold of the Catholic Church on modern Ireland is revealed in one old priest’s clinging to the simple-minded devotion of one young woman.  And in “The Dancing-Master’s Music,” the whole history of peasant Ireland’s dreadful dependence on England’s Big House mastery is suggested by one young scullery maid’s romantic memory of distant music.
In Trevor’s stories, what deeply matters cannot be openly articulated. In “Traditions,” a long standing secret at a boy’s school is fueled by mutual fantasy.  In “An Evening Out,” a couple on an arranged date fulfills each other’s needs in sly, unsavory ways.  In “Solitude,” a secret not meant to be seen and a tragedy not meant to take place haunts a woman all her life in Ancient Mariner fashion.          
These are luminous, restrained stories.  Every one of them deserves to be read and reread, their motivations marveled at, their sentences savored.   They fill the reader with awe at the complexity of the human experience and the genius of William Trevor.

We will miss him.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween 2016: Poe's "Descent Into the Malestrom" and "Pit and the Pendulum"

Halloween is always about exposing and exploiting the gap between the everyday and alternate reality.  Here is a brief discussion, excerpted from my book on Poe, of that gap.
Poe was interested in all human experiences that challenged or undermined the easy assumption that everyday reality was the only reality worth attending to.  Although some readers may think that this preference for alternate realms of experience was part of his psychological makeup, it is much more likely that it grew out of his acceptance of the German romantic tradition of short fiction as a vehicle for presenting experiences that break up the ordinary.
One of the most common such "alternate" experiences, of course, one that is accessible to every human being, is the experience of dream.  However, Poe was not only interested in presenting dreams as if they were reality, he was also interested, as was typical of the Blackwood fiction of the day, in presenting experiences that were so extreme that they seemed to have the nightmarish quality of dream.  To present dream as reality and reality as dream was, for Poe, to blur the lines between the two forms of experience.  It was to give the human construct of a dream the hard feel of the external world and to give the seemingly hard contours of the external world a sense of being a human construct. 
Two of Poe's best-known stories which blur this dream/reality distinction are "Descent into the Maelstrom" (May 1841) and "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1842).  Both present characters placed in an extreme situation; however, the situations differ in a crucial way.  In the first the extreme situation is a natural phenomenon, in spite of the fact that by its extremity it seems unnatural. It is a favorite Poe technique to create the extreme situation by pushing the ordinary situation to extraordinary lengths, to suggest the supernatural by pushing the natural to extremes.
 In the second story, the ontological status of the situation is ambiguous, for although  the character knows physically where he is, he does not know psychically what state he is in.  The stories also differ in terms of what motivates the extreme state.  In "A Descent into the Maelstrom," Poe devotes most of the story to setting up the situation, normalizing it, locating it in space; once the situation is established the story is almost over.  In "The Pit and the Pendulum," how the character got to his present situation is left vague; a great deal of the story is spent considering whether he is in is a dream or a waking state.  However, the means by which the two characters cope with their situations is similar; both make use of careful and lucid observation to try to escape their fate.
"Descent into the Maelstrom" begins in the typical Blackwood magazine manner by presenting a character who has undergone an "event" which has never happened to a human being before and who needs, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, to tell about it.  Moreover, Poe follows the device common to romantic dramatic lyric poetry of having the narrator tell the story while located the self at that point where the events of the story took place, informing his wedding-guest-like auditor: "I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned--and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye." 
However, the teller also makes use of the eighteenth-century technique of verisimilitude, using a "particularizing manner" to give  precise details of the physical phenomenon he is describing.  The listener adds to this particularizing technique of authenticating the event by quoting from written sources such as Rasmus and the Encyclopedia Britannica, but asserts that no matter how "circumstantial" or detailed the descriptions are, they fall short of conveying the horror, the magnificence, or the "sense of the novel" which the scene of the whirlpool elicits, noting, however, that he is not sure from what "point of view" previous commentators viewed the whirlpool.  It is this notion of point of view that motivates the story, for, as the teller has said at the beginning, no one has had the viewpoint he has had--the typical romantic perspective from within rather than from without.
The storyteller presents himself as an inadequate teller, for he often claims the inability of his words to capture the event; he says it is "folly to attempt describing" the hurricane which hits, and when he knows he is close to the whirlpool, he says, "no one will know what my feelings were at that moment."  However, if his feelings of horror are indescribable, his feelings when he loses his sense of horror are calm and logical.  Indeed, when he makes up his mind to hope no more, he becomes composed and begins to reflect on how magnificent it would be to die in this manifestation of God's power:
I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the while itself.  I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make, and my principle grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see.
It is precisely this obsession to observe, an obsession that Dupin experiences also, which saves the narrator.  The nearer he comes to the bottom of the whirlpool, the keener grows what he calls his "unnatural curiosity."  It is a combination of memory and observation of the geometric shapes which are less apt to be drawn down in the whirlpool that marks the means of his escape.  Lashing himself to a cylinder-shaped barrel, he throws himself off the fishing boat into the whirlpool and hovers half-way between the top and the bottom, between chaos below and salvation above, until the whirlpool--which is, after all, limited in time, subsides.  At this point, the teller ends his tale by  moving from the past to the present-tense, reflecting on the tale itself:
As it is myself who now tell you this tale--as you see that I did escape--and as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to say--I will bring my story quickly to conclusion.
And indeed, he does; however, he has been transformed by the experience from participant to manipulator of his own discourse, for he says his companions on shore "knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land."
"The Pit and the Pendulum" is much more ambiguous about the epistemological or ontological state of the extreme situation than "A Descent into the Maelstrom."  Although the entire story takes place inside a prison cell into which the narrator of the story, and indeed the story's only visible character, has been thrown, the story does not indicate what the nameless narrator has done to deserve the tortures he endures in the pit, nor does it deal with any of the religious or social implications of the Inquisition responsible for his imprisonment.  It simply recounts, in excruciatingly exact detail, the step-by-step means by which the torturers try to break the protagonist's spirit and his own methodical attempts to escape each new horror that they put in his path.
Although "The Pit and the Pendulum" only focuses on one character, the reader actually discovers very little about him.  We do not know his name, what he has done, whether he is guilty, whether he is a criminal, what he misses about life in the everyday world--in short, we know none of those things about the character that we might expect to learn if this were a novel in which a man spends several years in prison.  Although such a lack of knowledge would make readers quickly lose interest if they were reading a novel, it is indeed all that it is necessary to know to become involved with Poe's short story.  For this is not a realistic story of an individual human character caught in an unjust social system, but rather a nightmarish, symbolic story about every person's worst nightmare and an allegory of the most basic human situation and dilemma. 
The story is a Poe paradigm.  Focusing on a character under sentence of death and aware of it, it moves the character into a concrete dilemma which seems to "stand for" a metaphysical situation in an ambiguous way that suggests its "dreamy," "indeterminate" nature.  In this story we find the most explicit statement in Poe's fiction of his sense of the blurry line between dream and reality.   The narrator considers that although when we awake even from the soundest sleep, "we break the gossamer web of some dream," the web is so flimsy that a second later we forget we have dreamed at all.  However, sometimes, perhaps much later, memories of the details of the dream come back and we do not know where they have come from.  This sense of having a memory of that which did not in fact occur is central to the story's ambiguity, for as the narrator tries to remember his experience, it is not clear whether the memory is of a real event or a dream event that has been forgotten.
He does not know in what state he is; the only thing he does know is that he is not dead, for he says "Such a supposition, notwithstanding what we read in fiction, is altogether inconsistent with real existence;--but where and in what state was I?"  The narrator's task is simply to save himself, but in order to survive he must know where he is, and the first crucial task he undertakes is to try to orient himself.  However, his efforts are complicated by his moving back and forth between sleep and waking; each time he falls asleep, he must reorient himself all over again.  This explains why even after trying to demarcate his position, he awakes and, instead of going on forward, retraces his steps and thus overestimates the size of his cell.
Like the protagonist in "A Descent into the Maelstrom," he is preoccupied with curiosity about the mere physical nature of his surroundings, taking a "wild interest in trifles."  However, in spite of his deliberative efforts, it is the accident of tripping that saves him from the pit the first time.  Waking from another interlude of sleep, he is bound down, and this time above him is a picture of time, synonymous with death, carrying not the image of a scythe, but rather an actual pendulum which sweeps back and forth.  In this situation, surrounded by the repulsive rats, with the scythe of time and thus death over his head, he again moves back and forth between the states of sensibility and insensibility. 
This pattern of moving in and out of consciousness is much like the pattern in "Ligeia" and is typical of Poe, for in such an alternating state, consciousness has some of the characteristics of unconsciousness and vice versa; one state is imbued with the qualities of the other state.  As a result, Poe's stories are neither solely like the consciousness of realism, nor the projective unconsciousness of romance.  As the narrator totters on the brink of the pit, the walls rush back and an outstretched arm catches him as he falls.  The ending is not an ending at all, but rather the beginning of waking life, the movement from the gossamer dream or nightmare which constitutes the story itself.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

What If These Were the Best American Stories of 2016?--Part 3

Well, I have, with some effort, read all the stories in the 2016 Best American Short Stories twice, and I am definitely underwhelmed. Maybe I have read too damned many short stories over the last fifty years since I began teaching the form. I tell you, my friends, I did not, with the exception of a few, find these stories very powerful or distinctive or irresistible. Indeed, I thought most of them were predictable, pedestrian, routine, ordinary jobs of work—just not powered by the obsessiveness of a writer's sense of the mystery of human experience and not controlled by a writer's careful mastery of the language necessary to evoke that mystery.  In this blog post and one final one next week, I share with you my readings of the remainder of these stories.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, "The Bears" (What if I Used the Goldilocks Plot?)
Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum first came to public attention in 2004 when she was one of the five nominees for the National Book Award who became famous because they were so obscure.  Her second book Ms. Hempel Chronicles, has been dubbed a “novel-in-stories,” if for no other reason than the same central character appears in all of the stories in the book. The publishers knew better than to use the label “short stories” on the cover or in the promotional material, hoping readers would assume the book was a novel. And sure enough in her brief bio in this year's BASS, Ms. Hempel Chronicles is termed a novel.
Bynum says that for "The Bears" she had an experience she wanted to write about—her stay at a writer's retreat when she was pregnant—but she did not have a plot, so she borrowed one, something she has done before. A few years ago, she wrote a story entitled "The Erlking, "which was published in the New Yorker series “20 Under 40" it was originally written for a collection of fairy tales.  Based on Goethe’s poem of the same name, "The Erlking” does seem to follow many of the basic fairy tale conventions, although it does not take place “once upon a time,” but rather in the present world of anxieties experienced by a mother and her child (In Goethe’s poem, it is a father and son).
For "The Bears," she borrows the Goldilocks story and has her central character, a young woman who has recently miscarried, at a writer's retreat, wandering around in the woods and going into a house owned by a bear-like man.  She also makes use of the psychologist William James, about who she is supposed to be writing, by referring to James's paper "What is an Emotion," in which he uses the example of a person meeting a bear. When she sees the hulking bear of a man coming toward the house, Goldilocks-like, she jumps out the window and runs away. It's a facile little story, well-written and entertaining, and there may even be some relevance of the William James theory about emotions being the product of physiological responses we associate with them, but I doubt it.  Primarily it seems a writer's experimental attempt to graft a fairy tale plot on to some material she had lying around.

Ben Marcus, "Cold Little Bird" (What if a Child Suddenly Hated his Parents?)
This is a relatively simple "What if" story:  What if a young child suddenly and coldly refused his parents' love for him?  How would they handle it?  What would they do? How would it affect their marriage? The story does not provide an answer as to why the ten-year-old boy suddenly tells his parents he does not love them. For to provide an answer, e.g. parental neglect, abuse, bullying, e.g., would remove the mystery of the story. And it is the mystery that provides the piece with a sense of complexity; an explanation, by the psychologist, for example, would reduce the story to domestic melodrama. Throwing in an insert aside  about the boy reading a book that proposes that Jews were behind 9/11 is just a red herring.

Caille Millner, "The Politics of the Quotidian" (What if an Instructor Did not Belong?
This is a story about a post-doc philosophy instructor getting challenged by an obnoxious student who tells her she does not know what she is talking about when she talks about Roland Barthes on the nature of everyday reality, or the quotidian.  Millner says in her Contributor's Notes that the heroine of the story is facing a contemporary problem: "She's talented, she's a striver, and she's a person of color who's failing to make her way in a historically homogeneous institution." However, there is no mention of the fact that the central character is a "person of color."  The only hints we have are the following: When she is in boarding school, the narrator says (1) "She looked different from the other kids, came from a different kind of family, didn't have the money to go on their kinds of vacations." (2) When she talks with a colleague she has not seen in a while about her encounter with the student, he  asks her, "You're doing something with ethnic studies, right?" (3) When a photographer comes to take her id picture, he apologizes for the color filters which he says are designed for lighter skin, adding if he had known he would have brought different ones.  When she asks "known what?" he laughs and says, "I mean, they said the philosophy department."
So if we are sharp enough to catch these hints, or if we take the time to look Millner up on Google and see from her pictures that she is African American, we are to assume that the central character's difficulties are due to bias against her race in a philosophy department. This gives the secretary's remark "You don't belong here," what Millner calls added "resonance" (that terribly overused word).

Daniel J. O'Malley, "Bridge" (What if An Old Couple Jumped Off a Bridge?)
At a little over three pages, this is a simple image.  A young boy staring out his window sees an old couple take off all their clothes and jump off a railroad bridge. Ostensibly, the story is about the boy's trying to understand the significance of the event.  At the end, he invents or imagines that the two old people become birds when they  jump off the bridge and fly away. 

Yuko Sakata, "On This Side" (What if an Old Friend had a Sex Change Operation?)
This story depends solely on this line: "More than ten years ago, in junior high school, she had been a boy." A transsexual comes to find refuge with an old friend from school from a boyfriend who has abused her when he finds out her history. It takes twenty pages of insignificant talk and the quotidian to get to the conclusion you are expecting—that the old friend will become attracted to her, but that she will go back to the boyfriend.

Sharon Solwitz, "Gifted" (What If My Son Had Cancer?)
According to Solwitz's "Contributor's Note," this story is based on her son dying of cancer. That being so, it feels uncharitable to speak ill of the story. But when a writer puts a story out there, there is no choice but to treat it as a story.  Solwitz says she is now working on a "novel in stories" or a "collection of interrelated stories" about a fictional family who has a son with cancer. The focus of "Gifted" is on a forty-three-year-old woman whose son is diagnosed with a large abdominal tumor just before his bar mitzvah. The boy handles it with grace. On the other hand, she has an affair with a man she meets on business in London and squabbles with her sister with whom she has always competed. But if you want to know what happens to her son, the man, her marriage, etc., you will have to pick up the "novel in stories" or "collection of interrelated stories" whenever it becomes available.

Lauren Goff, "For the God of Love, for the Love of God" (Who Cares About These Beautiful People?)
This is a story about Amanda and Grant, who are visiting—actually kind of mooching off—Genevieve and Manfred, who have a home in Paris.  There is a lot of dialogue, without quotation marks, which gets a bit tiresome (dialogue is hard to sustain interest in unless it is loaded with significance). These are "beautiful people," (gotta have quotes around that phrase), and, of course, somebody is having se with somebody's wife , in this case, Grant is having sex with Genevieve.  Gen and Manfred have a son, a four-year-old named Leo, who seems pretty precocious for his age—enough so that when Amanda's beautiful  twenty-one-year-old niece Mina shows up,  that Leo seems quite smitten by her so that he is looking forward to her giving him a bath and getting him ready for bed. "The gleam on Mina's legs up the stairs. He would eat her if he could."
There's a bit of forced mythic subtext when Leo, inspired by seeing a picture of  the Phoenix aflame, sets a falcon on fire that has fallen dead out of the sky in the driveway. The story ends tediously enough with Mina thinking she will stay in Paris, for she is young and beautiful and can do anything she wants.  "Anything was possible.  The whole world had been split open like a peach." My, my, my!

Smith Henderson, "Treasure Slate" (Who Cares About These Worthless People?)
Henderson, who was born and raised in Montana, says this story came to him practically whole cloth, after reading an article about some clever rural burglars who check the newspapers for recent deaths and then go to the home funeral and rob the person.  Sometimes I wonder why stories about Montana so often focus on no-account crooks and ner-do-wells—part of a wild west tradition, I reckon.  This story about two brothers who aren't worth powder and lead to blow out their own brains just seems too fricking facile and superficial to me.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Integrating the Supernatural and Making Science the Context: Best American Short Stories 2016--Part 2

Integrating the Supernatural:
Louise Erdrich, "The Flower"
Karen Russell, "The Prospectors"
It seems appropriate that we take a look at these two stories together, not only because they both appeared in The New Yorker in June, 2015, but because they both share a similar structure: beginning as a realistic story with an historical context and then shifting into a supernatural story of the kind that has gained literary credence by being termed "magical realism."
 Let me say right up front that I like Erdrich's story, but do not have any positive reaction to the Russell story.  I know that part of this is due to my reactions to previous works by both writers.  I have read Erdrich since she first started writing and have always valued the way she recreates a magical world of Native American folklore.  I have read all of Karen Russell's short stories and have always found them light weight pop lit entertainments. You can take a look at my previous comments on both writers in earlier blogs by searching their names.
Basically, Russell's "The Prospectors" is about two young female hustlers in the 1930s who move to Oregon from Florida and are invited to a grand opening of a mountain lodge.  However, they take the wrong chairlift and end up at another lodge—one that was destroyed in an avalanche killing all the Civilian Conservation Corps young men building it.  Thus, the story focuses on the two women's encounter with these two dozen dead men who do not know they are dead.
The story just goes on and on and you can't wait until it ends. What irritates me most about Karen Russell is that she writes these superficial stories and then tries to convince us they are heavy-weight. In her interview for the "This Week in Fiction" blog and the BASS Contributor's Notes, she tries to justify this story as being a serious exploration of existential philosophy and cultural context.  For example, she says the word "prospecting" was highly "resonant"  (Aren't you tired of this terribly clichéd word?) for her of the notion of "staking an existential claim," for, after all, she says, the two women go to a party where their hosts demand that they "mint them into reality." 
Russell says with high seriousness that she loved the idea of a story about two friends who "survive the painful collapse of a fantasy, of a phantom structure of reality, and live to tell the tale." In her interview with New Yorker  editor Willing Davidson, she even dares to bring in Nietzsche to justify the dynamic between the two women: "Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species."  Good Lord! All this to justify a silly superficial story that even Stephen King could do better.
Louise Erdrich says her story about a seventeen-year old young man who tries to rescue an eleven-year-old native American girl from an old drunken white trader has its roots in journals kept by fur traders, as well as traditional Ojibwe and Cree stories. In her "This Week in Fiction" interview with Deborah Treisman, Erdrich justifies the supernatural elements in the story, e.g. the disembodied rolling head of the trader that chases the young people, by saying it comes from an traditional Cree/Ojibwe origin story, which suggests the damned person is doomed to roll forever detached from his body. She says the situations are based on such well-known stories and skills that she did not think them fantastical while she was writing them, for the training of spiritual people in many indigenous societies involves learning how to leave one's body.
Basically what makes Erdrich's story of the supernatural believable and Russell's story of the supernatural silly is the difference between the voices that tell them. Whereas Russell's story has the kind of self-conscious, elevated language that characterizes much of her work, Erdrich's story has the restrained, matter-of-fact tone that can present the incredible as belonging to a cultural world that accepts it and therefore makes it credible. After the poison given to the old trader makes his head swell up to a grotesque size, the fact that the head can become an independent entity seems perfectly acceptable. The fairy tale nature of the young girl who is a beautiful princess beneath her muddied face and who is saved by a young prince charming pursued by a maddened detached head would seem absurd if it were not for the restrained, matter-of-fact tone of the storyteller. Whereas there is nothing to motivate the entrance into the supernatural in Russell's story, Erdrich's story takes on the same kind of credibility that fairy tales do. We believe it because we have agreed to enter into the cultural world in which such tales explain what mystifies us.

Science as a Context:
Yalitza Ferreras, "The Letician Age"
Andrea Barrett, "Wonders of the Shore"
It is curious, but perhaps only incidental, that there are two stories with a science context in this year's Best American Short Stories: Andrea Barrett's "Wonders of the Shore" and Yalitza Ferreras's "The Letician Age." Andrea Barrett has used science as a background context many times before. I have posted on her stories before. Ferreras, who grew up moving back and forth between the Dominican Republic and New York City, is younger than Barrett and published less. She describes the origin of her story in what she calls a terrifying incident at an Hawaiian lava field that she wrote an essay about in a nonfiction writing class at Mills College.  This story is a fictionalized version of the essay, which maintains a list of famous geologists that appeared in the original. 
Ferreras says that when she was writing the story, she realized the list was made up solely of white males, and thus she understood the "real engine" of her story: "the quest for power by someone who feels powerless.  The story became about how Leticia embodies this desire."
"The Letician Age" begins with episodes from Leticia's childhood in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and in New York City. These episodes are interspersed with brief bios and accomplishments of famous geologists, e.g. Louis Agassiz, Georgius Agricola, George Barrow, etc. Leticia is fascinated, even obsessed with geology, keeping a rock collection and talking to the rocks. The geology obsession becomes a unifying metaphor in which Leticia thinks of her sister in terms of a mineral hardness scale, sees the eyes of a boy she meets as translucent crystals, her falling in love as a polarity reversal of the earth, etc. 
All this moves along in metaphoric fashion until something powerful must happen, and it does when she and her beloved boyfriend go to Hawaii and she obsessively tries to put her hand in molten lava and loses fingers and part of her hand. After surgery, she decides she and her boyfriend are mismatched, and she becomes convinced that her injury is due to a curse of the God Pele for taking  a volcanic rock from a volcano the day before the accident. The story ends with her scratching the rock and thinking of a painting of Pele that hangs in the post office in Hawaii. Her boyfriend had said that Leticia looked like Pele—a goddess who moves the earth.
The story works too self-consciously to make the science context an integral structural device. And it stretches the reader's imagination to believe that Leticia would put her hand in molten lava just because the story thematically demands it.
The difference between Andrea Barrett's use of a scientific context and Ferreras's is the difference between a purely human story that just happens to have a scientific context, and a somewhat forced story that depends solely on the scientific obsession that energizes it.   
I have read all of Andrea Barrett's stories in Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, and Archangel; the first two I reviewed, and the last I posted a blog on. I like her short stories--not because they are grounded in an historical context or because they are often linked together—but because of the careful prose with which they are written and the delicate and mysterious human relationships on which they focus.
As usual with Barrett's stories, this one features a fictional character embedded in a context of historically real characters—usually late nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century scientists.  "Wonders of the Shore" focuses on an invented character, a thirty-three-year old teacher named Henrietta Atkins, who assists the botanist Daphne Bannister, particularly one summer vacation in 1885, when they visit the Isle of Shoals off the coast of Maine, where Bannister becomes friends with writer Celia Thaxter, well-known as a friend of  writers Whittier and Sarah Orne Jewett, and painter William Morris Hunt.
When Thaxter shuns the company of Henrietta and increasingly pulls Daphne away to entertain her famous friends, Henrietta is drawn to a young painter named Sebby Quint. The crucial event in the story takes place when Henrietta receives a chatty letter from a well-meaning but dull man named Mason who wants to marry her. Although some part of her thinks she wants a life with him, when she finishes reading the letter, she crumples the pages and her eyes fill with tears.  When Sebby asks her what is wrong, she says Mason has met someone else and wants to break off with her.   She has no idea why she impulsively tells this lie, but it immediately increases Sebby's interest in her, and so she persists in it.
In 1901, after Thaxter has died and Bannister has published her book Wonders of the Shore, Bannister brings to Henrietta a package of Sebby's sketchbooks dated the summer of 1885, sent to her by a roommate of Sebby, informing her that he has died in an accident.  It is only then that we learn that Henrietta had an affair with Sebby that summer, and for sixteen years he had been present in her imagination, "leaping to mind unexpectedly when a wave lapped at a hull with a particular sound, or a cedar branch shook off the rain drops beading up on its needles." Many of the sketches are of Henrietta—a woman's hand, wrist, and forearm, a woman's naked back, a woman with her face hidden by her raised arms, a pair of woman's legs dangling over the edge of a rowboat.
The story ends by reminding us of the framework announced at the beginning—the friendship of Daphne and Henrietta that has lasted many years—with Daphne making frequent visits, about which notes are published in the newspaper, "which are colored by something that wouldn't be there if either of the women had married.  Now they seem to point at something.  They might not have read that way then." 
It is the secret life of Henrietta with Sebby and the secret night life of Daphne with Mrs. Thaxter that binds the two women together. Only the lie that had started it all remains Henrietta's secret, although Daphne probably knew about the affair. The story ends with Henrietta, who for a week after receiving Sebby's sketchbook, can feel his hair against her lips.
It is a delicate story that one must read slowly and carefully.  You have to love the language to love the story.  If you read it hurriedly, you will think it much about nothing, but if you let your lips move as you articulate the words and follow the rhythm of the syntax, you will appreciate the mysterious motivation of the two women whose relationship lies at its heart. Although science provides an historical context for the story, it is the complexly human that animates it—not an artificial plot provided by science.